The tale is still told of me that when I was a young thing of three or four, I left the clearing where I was supposed to be picking berries and ran down the track that led away from the house. I had never been outside the tree-fence in my life, and though I had seen my father and brothers ride away on that road and come back again an evening or two later, and though I had heard the stories told around the fire at night, and my childish mind held some idea of bears and wolves, I had not yet discovered that the world beyond our house was real. To my young, but already strong curiosity, the only way to find out was to run away when no one was looking.
At first it was fun, running in one of the pale wheel-ruts in the grassy path, and seeing the house disappear when I reached the first bend. The horizon was new, exciting to a small child, even if it was only trees and more trees. But that was my undoing in the end, for with so many trees all around me, and the path twisting so much, I soon found that I did not know which way was home. The patches of sky so far above me were too small to guide me. I remember leaving the path and wandering through the untame wood.
I must have gone from one dark-skinned tree to another mossier to a third more blue with lichen, and so on, for at least an hour. I found a way that was easier going than others, somewhat downhill, and by the time those at home had discovered my absence, even had they known which way I had taken, it would not have helped them had they shouted ever so loud. The dogs were gone that day with the men who were hunting, so a child so young was surely doomed, one way or another. Afterwards they said one of the gods must have been protecting me.
I went on downhill, stopping when I found a patch of slow-melting snow shining in a hole or under a log, and I scattered it about and drank some of it and went on. A hazel bush caught me, tearing my dress between the back of my arm and the seam, and that corner fell backward. I can still recall the way it felt, my frantic and clumsy attempts to pin it up with thorns and twigs, how afraid I was of my mother scolding me for it, for the dress was new.
When I came to a stream I stopped to play in it, like any child, and my hair, which had pulled loose long ago, got muddy, and my face streaked where I pushed my hair back with muddy fingers where it fell forward onto my cheeks. When at last I grew tired of that place, I followed it downstream, to a place where it plunged into a ravine; and here I walked more cautiously, for I heard strange noises in the bushes, and once a single crow flew by, watching me out of one eye.
The stream and the ravine and I wandered together for a long while, and then the trees stood back from its banks, and the bushes grew small, so that I could walk upright again, and broke fewer twigs. The stream broadened out, and then the hillsides disappeared, and we were in a clearing like the one I lived in, only bigger, much bigger, and instead of a house and the usual outbuildings there were many large beehives built of stone, and one hall in the midst of them.
I went up to the nearest hive and put my ear to it, but I heard no humming, so I walked around it till I came to a large square window not far off the ground, and I looked in. The hive plainly was no bee-house, for piled in it were wild, strange things I could not guess the names of, things certainly no bee ever had. Oddest of all, at the far end by another window, through which the sun was coming, was a big heap of brown cloth.
I pulled myself up onto the window ledge, and was about to drop over on the other side, when the fabric moved.
I screamed, I remember, and nearly toppled off backwards. The fabric turned around (I was now quaking so hard I couldn’t have run if I’d thought to try), and it was a man, not cloth at all, but he was wearing a long robe down to his feet, something like the Druid priest who sometimes visited us, only not white. His head was bald up to his crown, and he had very big eyes and many wrinkles on his face. He stood there with his hands hidden in his sleeves, and he smiled at me and said in a funny accent,
“Peace be with you, child.”
I don’t know why he didn’t scream, too –– it is very rare one sees someone as dirty and terrified as I sitting on their windowsill. But he didn’t seem frightened in the least, hardly even startled.
By this time I had decided that he was no one to be feared, and I climbed down on the inside of the hive.
“Now whose child are you?” he asked, touching one forefinger to his mouth as he examined me, with my torn dress and muddy hair. “I’ve never seen you before, that I can say.”
“I’m Wulfnoth’s child, Alfhildr,” I said boldly, for my father was a carl, and his name was held in honour.
“Oh, Wulfnoth, I’ve heard of him. Yes, he was the young man who came with the deputation that bore the Earl’s letter to us, and grant of land, for which I’m thankful. It’s a good place and gives many hours of sunlight, this valley does.”
“Why do you need so much sunlight?” I asked, seizing upon the smaller matter as one whose greatness did not cause it to fly over my head as being a matter for the men.
“Come see what I was working at when you came in, like a thief in broad daylight,” he answered with a smile, beckoning me over to the bench by which he stood.
I crossed the room, dodging a square table with colourful parchments laid out on it, and stood next to him by the bench. He showed me how he had taken a plain sheet of parchment (a thing I had never seen before till that day), and made lines on it with pale ink, to make figures and large letters, and now was filling in those lines with bright colours, making the knotted people and birds and geometric designs stand out from the page. He spent much time showing me how he made the letters, and how the large red mountain-shape at the top of the page made the sound that was the first of my own name and his, and how it was one sound out of others that combined to make a word. I begged him to let me make the letter, and he dug around in a pile of shavings in a corner till he found a scrap the right size, and showed me how to make the curved line that began it, and the ring that went around the middle to finish it off. I have that scrap of parchment now.
By the time we had finished, my stomach was loudly making its wants known, and the kind man offered to take me where I could eat.
“But it seems to me,” he said, opening the door in the hut and leading me out, stopping outside to shade his eyes with his hand and looked in the direction of the sun, “that we ought to return you to your parents, else they will be angry with you, thinking that you’ve run away.”
“But I did,” I said. “I got lost, but I ran away first.”
“Come eat, and then you may tell me where you live,” he said, leading me to a long, narrow building with a low roof, standing on the other side of the hall.
“Don’t you eat in the longhall?” I asked as we went past it, and I turned to look up at the great tower that stood up from it, thinking how my brothers would like to play at war about it.
“No; we save that for a different kind of refreshment, and service,” he said. “We eat in here.”
The little hall was almost empty, except for a very old man, bent almost in half, sitting at a bench and scouring a bowl with a wooden spoon. He wore the same kind of long robe as the scribe, but it seemed far too heavy for his thin frame, as if the weight of it alone would pull him over.
“What waif have you found, Andreas?” he asked my guide.
“Wulfnoth’s daughter, Alfhildr,” he said. “She was lost and found her way to my hut. Alfhildr, this is our Abbot. His name is Fearhdorch; we call him Calbhach Abban, meaning our little bald Abbot, but you need not.”
Andreas brought me a bowl of soup and a slice of bread, still warm, and I sat at one end of the long table and swung my legs under it, eating and thinking, if I thought of anything besides the food, of what a pleasant place this was.
“Now,” said Brother Andreas, when I had done, “let us go to the gate, and you will bring me to your home.”
I was a little afraid of the time when I would have to admit that I did not know my way home, but it turned out that I did not, for when we reached the gate, the warden was explaining to three mounted men, who were demanding admittance, that no small girl such as the carl described had been seen at the cenoby that day.
“Here is the wandering sheep,” said Brother Andreas, stepping up to the gate. “Is she the one you seek?”
“Aye; more of a bird than a sheep, she is so given to flying in ways we cannot trace,” my father said rather sulkily. “Come up to me, Alfhildr.”
“I would like to come back, if I may,” I said as my father lifted me onto his horse.
“I should be glad of that, if your father were to approve,” Andreas said, lifting his right hand and making a sign over me. I did not know the sign, but my father’s sister often made a sign over me when we were visiting and left her house, so I did not mind, though as soon as the man’s back was turned my father made the sign against evil over me, and all his men over themselves.